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Eden experience dulled by traffic problems, queues and few plants

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martin pawley

It is 11 o'clock on a hot morning in June at the Eden Project. The line of cars crawling towards the car park stretches far beyond the rim of the former China Clay pit. There has already been a portent - an enigmatic entry in the visitor's book of our holiday cottage. It reads: 'We went to that Eden Project.

We got our money back.'

The line of cars begins to inch past other portents. 'Approximately 70 minutes queuing from this point' is a sign that takes the gloom prize. But 20 minutes later we leave behind us the boulder-lined drive, the big notice explaining in detail why no dogs are allowed and the huge mobile sign advertising Land's End, and turn into car park Plum 3 - compared with Guatemala, it is quite handy for the biomes, but still a long way from the visitor centre.

It is now 11.30am. We are making our way on foot through a succession of car parks down thinly gravelled walkways where the tar has already melted and the chippings adhere to your shoes. We pass tattered banners blowing in the wind and a thickening column of refugees toiling up the car parks in the opposite direction.

We fight our way through to the visitor centre. It is as packed with people as a major rail terminus on a Bank Holiday, but from its crowded viewing platform the awesome scale of the great pit is at last revealed, as is the complicated slalom of walkways leading down into it.

Refreshed by their downhill yomp from the car parks, most of the new arrivals, including ourselves, are eager to press on down to the great soapy biomes that cluster like monster frogspawn on the opposite side of the quarry.

Alas, no small number come to regret their haste for not only is the distance much greater than it at first appears, but the prospect of the return journey soon casts a shadow before it.

But by then it is too late. The Balkans-style tractors, with trailers that spiral round the crater from ground zero to the visitor centre summit and back again, carry too few people and run on too leisurely a timetable to keep pace with demand. As a result, the attractions that draw the visitors down into the pit continually augment their numbers, creating a situation in which the amenities are swamped and a good proportion of the pit's population is actually trying to escape from a space that, by lunchtime, looks like nothing so much as a football stadium filled with truculent internees.

It is forests of tropical plants that the visitors cramming the biomes want to see, and when they realise these do not yet exist, they start looking at their watches and eyeing the enormous queue for the tractor trains out of the pit. Heavy rain or pitilessly hot sun add spice to the proceedings. Because of this uneasy dynamic, the magnificent domes themselves, whose minimal structuring and maximal translucency exceed all expectations, seem, cruelly, to be ignored.

The axiom that structure eventually loses itself in function might have been inspired by the magnificent and truly ephemeralised Eden Project domes. All the more unfortunate then that their important achievement runs the risk of being overshadowed by the project's mundane traffic problems, its infantry-style customer movement system and its much hyped 'story of mankind's dependency on the plant world', which is so far no more than a collection of poor sculptures and a disappointingly small display of new plant life, some of which is struggling rather than thriving in its new synthetic soil.

No doubt this will be put right in time but, until it is, a few health warnings for the aged would not go amiss.

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